The Soul of Things: Or should I buy that old metal sewing machine?

The Soul of Things: Or should I buy that old metal sewing machine?

A friend told me the other day she was going to start collecting sewing machines. I found this a bit odd, mainly because, though she can sew, she doesn’t on any sort of regular basis. She said she was cleaning her apartment and came across her sewing machine shoved way up on the top shelf of her closet and then, for some reason, had the thought she should start collecting them.

Old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting & cool.

Old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting & cool.

I get it; old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting and cool. They often have intricate decals and ornate brand badges. Most of them still work – mainly because they’re all metal and have less parts to break.

Oldie but a goodie

I used to have an old black iron Singer with a knee pedal. I don’t remember the model number but it was one of the first ‘portable’ models Singer made. The machine did run on electricity and came in a beautiful wood dome shaped case. In reality, it was actually a bit too heavy to be considered portable. I think I found it in the depths of some storage room in an old school building somewhere in Syracuse, NY. I was working for a costume designer, I think, for the opera. (Does Syracuse still have an opera? I can’t remember – it’s been so long).

We had been given the storage room as a work space and told we could have and/or use whatever was in it. I remember sitting in a corner, shelves and tables around me piled high with fabrics and boxes and just stuff, sewing tucks into big white cotton petticoats. I remember the machine being very fast. Unlike a lot of models today who have multiple speed settings, machines back then only had one: fast.

I honestly am not sure what happened to that machine. I know it made the move to Texas but it didn’t make the move to NYC, so it’s been gone from my life for almost fifteen years. I suspect I sold it at a garage sale for $20.00 or something. Or even gave it away to someone who would use it – which is sort of how I think antique sewing machines should navigate through life.

Value: only in the eye of the beholder

I know there are some ‘rare’ models that are perhaps ‘worth’ a lot of money but, all in all, I think people tend to pay entirely too much for used machines. Online auction sites such as Ebay certainly contribute to that. I suppose it’s nice that people can get some money for the old machine that’s been sitting in their basement or garage but, I also think those Ebay auctions get a bit out of hand. And they also trend, often for no discernable reason.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

It’s a beautiful machine and comes with the carrying case but no accessories. I honestly think it’s priced too high but perhaps someone will buy it. The value of things is, of course, ultimately measured by what people will pay for that thing (just look at real estate prices in NYC).

The case is a nice touch, since that is all you will likely get with these older machines. Through the passage of time, included accessories & attachments become rare finds.

The case is a nice touch, since that is all you will likely get with these older machines. Through the passage of time, included accessories & attachments become rare finds.

What now?

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

Go to garage sales (or stoop sales if you live in the city). When I lived in Texas, I used to frequent yard and garage sales all the time. I almost always found at least one machine at each sale. Some of them I bought but they were never for more than $30.00 or $40.00. If you are buying a machine at sale, ask if you can plug it in to see if it works. Check to see if you can turn the wheel freely and, even if the belt happens to be cracked or broken (they often are as the belts are usually rubber) make sure the light comes on when plugged in.

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

The needle won’t go up and down if the belt is missing or damaged but belts are not an expensive or difficult thing to fix. Check for rust too. Machines that have been stored in a garage or barn often have too much rust damage to ever run well again.

I’ve gotten out of the buy old sewing machines game (I live in a 5th floor walkup in NYC after all), especially on online auction sites. Although many of those machines are cosmetically extraordinary, they lack a “soul”. The only ‘antique’ machines I have now are my Nana’s old Singer 401K and a Singer hemstitcher we purchased for Boardwalk Empire. I’ll never get rid of Nana’s machine. Its sentimental value is immeasurable (even if it didn’t work though it does).

And that’s when things truly become priceless: when they somehow hold a collection of memories related to a person or time.

Magic Makers and Dreamers of Dreams

Magic Makers and Dreamers of Dreams

As the tailor in the costume department on a major network television show, I often am asked to do minor sewing repairs/favors for people in other departments. I mostly don’t mind, especially if the person who is actually in need of the favor comes to ask me in person. It’s usually small things like sewing on a button or repairing a seam that has split open. If I’m not too busy and the repair will take five to ten minutes, I’ll often go ahead and do it while they wait.

If the favor-seeker is a woman, they inevitably say something like, “I always wanted to learn how to sew,” or “My mom tried to teach me but I was never interested,” or “I wish I knew how to sew.”

You’re never too old to learn

I always want to ask why they didn’t, or why don’t they now and then. Sometimes, if I think about it too much, I become a bit sad as, once again, I realize that sewing really kind of is a dying art. Along with shop and industrial arts classes, sewing certainly isn’t taught anymore in most school systems. Many people view ‘maker’ type skills as not as prestigious or “smart” as careers in finance or marketing. There’s quite a bit of research on the subject and, also, apparently a “Maker Movement”. It seems maybe people are starting to realize how important and necessary building and making skills are and how much the world really does still need true craftspeople.

I’m fascinated by anyone who has practiced and honed their skills to the point of being able to create something beautiful and functional with just their hands. When it comes to making things out of fabric or wood or metal or whatever, the true magic is in watching the thing emerge from beneath your fingers.

The importance of guidance

Jorge, who was the man who taught me how to drape, always used to say, “Just cut away all the parts that aren’t a 1930s dress,” (or whatever it was I was endeavoring to make). I suppose it’s true that not everyone has the ability to see a 1930s dress in a pile of fabric: that’s what makes some drapers and pattern makers artists. But if you do have that ability, or the ability to see a three-dimensional object and know what it would look like as a two-dimensional pattern than you owe to yourself to develop that gift. Because it’s a rare thing indeed. Or if you know a young person who has expressed interest in sewing and making things, teach them and encourage them.

Sewing and patternmaking are incredible skills to have and you can make a very lucrative career out of them. When I met Christy Rilling years ago, she was working out of her tiny East Village apartment. Now, she has a full studio and a roster of talented tailors working for her. And she tailors Michelle Obama’s clothing.

Use your hands and make something

I ride my bike everywhere in the city, over all sorts of potholes and debris.

I ride my bike everywhere in the city, over all sorts of potholes and debris.

I wish more young people were interested in pursuing careers in things like furniture building, masonry, tailoring, and clock & watch repair though I do think that our schools systems are partially to blame for the lack of “interest”. The world is always in need of beautiful & unique things and the individuals who can make them. By beauty, I mean anything that is lovingly & expertly crafted – from a simple wood chair to an intricate mechanical pocket watch, to a bias cut dress that hugs the body it was made for just right to a hand built bicycle wheel.

Have you ever watched someone build a bicycle wheel? It’s kind of amazing. I recently had one built for my bike. When the wheel was done and on my bike, I was struck suddenly by the immense importance of that wheel to be well built. I mean, I ride my bike everywhere in the city, over all sorts of potholes and debris and I trust, completely without thinking, that that wheel will do its intended job and not suddenly crumple under the pressure. That’s a big trust when you really think about it.

I will say here that I do have a locally owned bike shop https://www.bicycleroots.com I always go to and my friend, who owns the shop, is the only one I’d trust to build me a wheel. Which brings me to my next point.

The most valuable commodity: People

Relationships and trust are key when it comes to building a business around your skill, sewing or otherwise. When it comes to sewing and patternmaking, your goal is most always to make a person look their very best. If you do that, they will come to realize the value in having something made or altered just for them and they’ll come back and they’ll also send their friends.

So encourage some aspiring maker today if you can and tell them it’s an extremely wonderful thing if they think they might want to do this making thing for a living someday. Because there’s always room for more magic makers in this world.

Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

The film and television business has many safety precautions in place. Productions almost always have a Stunt Coordinator to supervise and choreograph any type of fight or daredevil action scene. Actors and actresses often have stunt doubles who will perform most of the really ‘dangerous’ bits. Big name actors usually have a regular stunt double who always works with them no matter what show or film they are on.

What this means costume-wise, is that we need to dress the double in exactly the same clothes as the actor. Many times, both the stunt and actor themselves will require multiple outfits of the same thing.

Love / hate

I have a love-hate relationship with multiples. On the one hand, it can be super boring to do the same alteration on the same pair of pants, or jacket, or whatever six to ten times. On the other hand, it can be a very zen experience: doing the same thing over and over kind of puts you into a rhythm where everything flows naturally and without much thought. I prefer to do all the multiples at one time if possible.

When I lived in Austin, TX, I worked as a set costumer on many of the films directed by Robert Rodriguez: Spy Kids, Sin City, Grindhouse. His movies are very stunt heavy which makes his sets very active and interesting. The stunt coordinator for all the films I worked on for Mr. Rodriguez was a lovely and talented man named Jeff Dashnaw. Many of the actors and stunt actors were harnessed for various scenes. A stunt harness is similar, I suppose, to a climbing harness or rig. It’s made of heavy canvas and twill and sometimes has metal jump rings to facilitate the attachment of cables.

There are different types of harnesses, depending on what sort of action is required. Some are full vests and some are just a belt and leg straps. It’s up to the stunt coordinator to determine what harness should be used and where the cables should be attached in order to create the desired effect. There’s quite a bit of physics knowledge in all of that!

What to do when things go wrong

Things can go wrong sometimes and people can be injured. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen all that often. On a show I worked on recently one of the actors tore a ligament in his hand which, in turn, resulted in him having to wear a big, rather awkward cast. The task of trying to disguise this cast fell to the costume department.

The costume designer and I had to figure out how to make a glove of some sort to cover the cast.

Tracing of hands.

Tracing of hands.

First, we traced the actor’s hand in his cast.

Make a pattern.

Make a pattern.

Next, I made a pattern of the tracing. Our idea was to use an existing glove, take it apart, stitch the fingers together (since his fingers are bound together), and add a new neoprene layer on the palm side.

Taking apart an existing glove.

Taking apart an existing glove.

This was the first result: Not too bad.

First attempt at a glove to hide the cast.

First attempt at a glove to hide the cast.

Then we decided that it might look better to have the thumb separate so I did some modifications:

Attempt 2 with separate thumb.

Attempt 2 with separate thumb.

Now, it’s a bit too small across the knuckles so I have to take the neoprene back off and recut a new, wider one, to add some width.

Being flexible is key

Projects like this are fairly normal in my sewing life. And if there’s one thing that seems to be true no matter what show I’m working on it’s that the costume department is almost always the ones tasked with finding solutions to a problem that no one else wants to deal with.

TV magic. It’s a real thing. This actually reminds me of an incident during Boardwalk Empire when I came to work one morning to find a shredded beaded dress on my table with a note that said, “Help! Please work your magic to fix this dress. It works again this evening.”

We did indeed manage to put the dress back together to get through one more night of filming but we sent it back to set with a note that read, “We are all out of magic for the week but did our best to bring this dress back from the dead. Love, The Costume Shop.”

In the Wee Hours of the Morning

In the Wee Hours of the Morning

I’ve always been a morning person, or rather, I’ve never really found it that difficult to get up at before the crack of dawn. I’m usually not ready to actually talk to anyone until after the sun is up but, I actually really like the quiet pre-dawn hours, especially in a big city, like New York.

The bars here close at 4:00 am so the hours between four and six are the transition between last night and this morning; people who work in bars are on their way home (as well as those who were just out drinking) while another whole group of people are on their way to work. The streets are relatively quiet without much traffic – a true rarity in New York City. Cycling through the early morning streets always feels like a special, secret thing. The cabs that are out and about rarely honk this early and we share the roads without incident.

Top of the morning

A lot happens in the city between the hours of 4:00 am and 7:00 am. I’m not the only one out. Central Park is already humming starting at 5:00 am with runners, walkers, cyclists, and dogs. The street vendors are up and opening up their carts. Most bodegas are open already (many of them stay open all night). On the weekends, there are bike races and running races (the NYC half marathon was yesterday) and, all about the city, especially if its Monday morning, film and television crews are going to work, or are already at work.

If you want to work in film and television, you have to be able to get up early. And I mean early, like before 5:00 am, and, if you’re in the wardrobe of hair and makeup departments, often before 4:00 am. It’s not unusual for the costume and wardrobe departments to have to be at work by 5:30am, or 5:00 am. I’ve even had to be at work by 4:30 am before.

Actor call times for this morning, including fitting times.

Actor call times for this morning, including fitting times.

The main reason for this is the sun, and the fact that most shooting days are, at a very minimum, twelve hours long. Mondays usually mean a super early start as the goal is often to start filming outside as soon as the sun is up (you don’t want to miss any of that precious daylight, especially in the winter months when the days are shorter).

It’s all about proper preparation

In order to have the actors ready to go on set when the sun is up, they need to get to work an hour or two beforehand to go through hair and makeup and to get dressed. If it’s day that requires a large amount of background actors to be dressed and ready to go in the first shot, they (and the wardrobe people who are there to help them get ready) often must report to work a couple hours before sunrise.

As the tailor, I often have to be at work for an early morning fitting that happens before an actor goes to hair and makeup. Then I have the hour or so when they’re “in the chair” as we call it in the film business, to complete an alteration. This is also when my fast sewing skills come in handy.

The early bird

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am.

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am.

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am. We were also on the stage most of last week, including Friday, so the crew will be pretty much ready at 7:00 to start shooting. If we’ve been out somewhere on location shooting, sometimes an extra half hour or so is needed to get the lights ready, the cameras out, the props set, etc.

Times the wardrobe, costume, and hair & makeup departments had to be at work this morning.

Times the wardrobe, costume, and hair & makeup departments had to be at work this morning.

The wardrobe crew, though, was here at 5:42 and 6:00 and the first actors arrived by 6:00.

Sometimes people ask how I’m able to get up so early. I honestly don’t know the answer. I will say that I think you do get used to it. I actually hate when I don’t have to be at work until 9:00 or 10:00, mainly because it can take twice as long to get there when you’re in the midst of rush hour traffic. I’d choose the 5:00 and 6:00 am starts every time.

I do my best, focused work early in the morning; things don’t seem as frenetic before the sun is up. There are fewer distractions, the phone doesn’t ring, the only texts are most likely directly related to whatever I’m working on, people aren’t quite awake yet so there’s less chit chat. Things just seem to flow along at a steady, quiet, unencumbered pace.  Also, when you get to work at 6:00 in the morning, you get to have second breakfast at 10:00 – and who wouldn’t be up for that?

The Traveling Tailor

The Traveling Tailor

Sewing machines and supplies aren’t exactly the most portable things. Sometimes, when I’m not working fulltime on a show, I’ll get a one or two day job that requires me to schlep a machine and supplies to a work space. These are my least favorite kind of jobs – for no other reason than I have to transport my machine and a small kit of sewing supplies somewhere.

I live in New York City. I haven’t owned a car in over ten years.

What’s the big deal, you may ask, just throw it all in your car and go. Well, that’s the thing: I live in New York City. I haven’t owned a car in over ten years. The last time I drove was about two years ago. And I’m not a huge fan of Uber or even good old-fashioned yellow cabs. Cars are just not the most efficient way to get around the city. So, I’m usually dragging a sewing machine up and down the subway stairs to get to where I need to go.

On the go

I know I’ve recommended these machines before, but Brother makes some incredibly good and lightweight machines. I have two SC9500s. They are so lightweight that I carry them in a tote bag on my shoulder. I then use a backpack to carry my supplies: scissors, threads, rulers, chalk, a small collection of notions.

Other Brother machines that are very light weight are the CS5055 and the ES2000.

I also bike a lot, which is always the most efficient way to get around the city, and have been known to strap a machine (in a box) to the rear rack on my bicycle.

When going to a job that is only one or two days, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to bring, especially if you’re trying to not lug your entire shop down the length of Manhattan and across the bridge to Brooklyn.

Here’s a list of what I usually bring to a short one-day job:

  • 1 pair of tailor’s points or small scissors
  • 1 pair of medium sized shears
  • 1 pair of pinking shears (because I’m certainly not bringing a serger along to finish seams.)
  • 1 gallon sized Ziploc of thread. Must have colors include black, grey, white, tan, a greeny-brown, nude, and a yellow-orange for topstitching on jeans.
  • 12” see through 2” wide ruler
  • 1 soft tape measure
  • Tailor’s chalk, red marking pencil, pencil, black disappearing ink pen
  • Seam ripper
  • Metal hem gauge ruler
  • Small container of straight pins
  • Extra bobbins for machine
  • Small collection of hand and machine needles (I always bring some leather needles and double needles, just in case.)
  • 1 gallon sized Ziploc of bias tape (black and white), elastics, twill tape, and hem tape.
  • Small containers of snaps and hook & eyes.
  • Muslin pressing cloth
  • Small collection of nude spandex and netting scraps and interfacings

Lighting is key

Sometimes it’s nice to bring along a small light of some kind. I often find myself sewing in inadequately lighted spaces. I tend not to bring a lamp because, well, the subway. I always make sure the light in the machine is working. And the flashlight on an iphone can be extremely helpful in especially dark circumstances.

Gear up

I’m not very high tech with my carrying cases but there are lots of really lovely ones out there if you’re not into backpacks and tote bags.

https://www.sewingmachinesplus.com/sewing-accessories-cases.php

The key is to keep everything super organized. And don’t worry about not having all the thread. Unless you’re topstitching, most things can be sewn with black, white, or tan. I know some tailors that only use those colors of thread. It really is ok if your thread doesn’t match exactly. And sometimes you just have to use what you have, especially if you are a traveling tailor.

How to Sew Faster

How to Sew Faster

My job as a tailor on a television show often requires me to complete an alteration in a seemingly impossible amount of time. Not to be overly cocky or self-congratulating but, I can be pretty fast when needed. People frequently ask me how I’m able to do something so quickly.

Don’t hesitate. Just, do.

Honestly, I don’t think so much about it anymore: its pretty much second nature at this point. But, I suppose if I were to break it down, the process would go something like this:

First, don’t panic. Whatever you do, don’t panic. If you do, you could find that suddenly you’re unable to thread a needle, or your needle breaks, or the thread tangles.

Second, don’t hesitate. Just, do.

As you’re working, think about the next step. Plan ahead.

Concentrate fully on what you’re doing. Don’t listen to the conversations going on around you. Pay no mind to whatever random chaos might be happening in another part of the room. Just focus your full attention on the one thing you are doing. That is all that is important.

Whatever you do, don’t thread mark. I know that’s what they teach in sewing school but there is no reason to have to thread mark a pant hem.

A few tips on how to sew faster:

Do as much as you can without stopping to iron.

If I’m really pressed for time, I tend to leave all the ironing until the very end (pun intended).

Learn how to eyeball measurements. Think about it, if you’ve been sewing long enough, you know what a ½” looks like. You honestly do not need to mark every single little line. If you want to measure, go ahead, put use your pins to mark the line. I often work with a metal seam gauge but rarely actually draw a new stitching line. One exception is if I’m re-mitering a suit jacket sleeve corner though I know lots of tailors that do not need to draw that line either.

Whatever you do, don’t thread mark. I know that’s what they teach in sewing school but there is no reason to have to thread mark a pant hem. I once had an additional tailor helping me on a show who insisted on thread marking the fold line on hems for cop pants. Buy some tailor’s chalk and use that to mark your hemline. It’ll disappear when ironed.

Unless you’re topstitching, you really don’t have to have your thread match exactly. Believe me. Whatever thread is in your machine is just fine. I cannot begin to tell you how many black garments I’ve altered quickly with red or yellow or whatever happened to be in the machine colored thread.

Learn how to undo a chain stitch. A lot of manufacturers use chain stitches in clothing construction. This makes it super easy to take them apart when needed. You can only unravel a chain stitch in one direction, the direction it was sewn in. Most of the time, all you need to do is insert a seam ripper and pull in that direction and all the stitching will come undone. The center back seam of men’s pants, often will have two rows of stitching so you’ll need to pull each row separately.

A couple other seam deconstruction tips:

To take apart a serged seam, use a nice sharp seam ripper and run it through the threads that wraps around the edge of a seam. After you do this, the rest of the threads will usually come apart rather quickly. Some serged seams are on a chain as well and you can undo them by pulling the thread on the straight stitch.

One of the fastest ways of taking apart a seam is to, again, use an extremely sharp seam ripper and insert it into the seam from the right side and just pull upwards through the seam. This technique takes a bit of practice (and bravery) though as the potential to accidentally slice through the fabric is ever present. There’s a knack to getting the angle of the seam ripper just right though and once you figure that out, you’re golden.

In the end, the one sure way of becoming a faster tailor is by practice. The more often you repeat the same task, the more efficient at it you become.

As you do an alteration, try to think of ways you could save time: do you really need to flip everything back right side out then inside out then right side out again? Probably not. If you sew this first, will it make it easier to sew this? Or visa versa? Experiment and try things multiple ways until you’ve figured out the quickest sequence of steps for yourself.

I love discovering a new, faster way of doing something I’ve done a million times. Sewing is kind of cool like that: there’s always something more to learn and fresh tactics to uncover.

Funky Design Details in Men's Shirts

Funky Design Details in Men’s Shirts

I alter a lot of men’s long sleeve button front shirts at work. We use a variety of brands, each of which usually has its own little signature detail or cut. I can often tell what designer brand a shirt is without having to look at the tag.

I suppose, though, that as a designer at Rag & Bone or Varvatos, or Paul Smith, or the like, you can find yourself hard pressed to come up with some new, unique detail that makes your shirt special. Contrasting fabric on collars and cuffs has been done, funky buttons have been done.

Sleeve and center front plackets in a different fabric: done. Welt breast pockets. Done. Stand collars, unfinished seams, all of it, has been done. At times, I think there isn’t anything new left to do. I was pretty sure I’d seen it all when it came to cool, weird, and even sometimes bizarre design details on mens shirts.

Varvatos shirt showing collar stand unattached from shirt body.

Varvatos shirt showing collar stand unattached from shirt body.

But, John Varvatos proved me wrong. The newest feature on their long sleeve button front shirts is to leave the part of the collar stand that contains the button – you know, the portion that extends past the collar and is, essentially the center front overlap – unattached from the shirt body. Odd, because, if the shirt is buttoned, it really doesn’t look any different. And if the shirt isn’t buttoned, it kind of looks like a rip or tear.

Varvatos shirt with collar stand pinned and ready to sew.

Varvatos shirt with collar stand pinned and ready to sew.

I spent some time last week sewing collar stands to shirt fronts. I do, though, have to give the designers at Varvatos kudos for coming up with something I hadn’t seen before. It also ensures that, in the future when I see that particular detail, I will automatically know it’s a Varvatos shirt. So, good job on the branding. 🙂

To do list

While I’m on the subject, here’s a short list of design (or construction) element quirks that tend to be slightly annoying to film and television customers.

Rag & Bone with their painted white buttons.

Rag & Bone with their painted white buttons.

Rag & Bone and their painted white buttons.

They put the same painted white buttons on most every shirt. The buttons are kind of cool in a shabby chic-look-at-me kind of way but, the last thing you want when filming are shirt buttons that upstage the person wearing the shirt.

I’ve wasted many an afternoon, replacing those buttons with normal, non-descript ones.

Brooks Brothers and the glue they insist on using in their seams.

Taking apart a Brooks Brothers shirt is no quick and easy task – the stitches are miniscule and, as if that’s no enough, they use some sort of glue in their flat felled seams.

Ralph Lauren Polo.

Ralph Lauren Polo.

Ralph Lauren and the polo horse logo.

We’re rarely able to use any piece of clothing on a film or television show with an obvious logo for legal reasons. Most shows need clearance to use anything that clearly advertises a particular brand.

I can tell you that removing those cute little polo horses takes a really long time.

Any shirt that says it’s a ‘slim fit’ yet still has a back pleat.

I think I’ve written before about removing the back pleat (or pleats) in button front shirts. These are the pleats in the shirt body where it joins the yoke. They exist to add a good amount of ease to the shirt through the body. The only thing is, in the world of film and television they just end up looking bulky, a bit messy, and definitely not slimming. So I take them out. If I have the time, I usually take the entire back off and recut it, moving the armseye and side seams in the appropriate amount. If it’s a quick and dirty thing, I just throw some side back darts in and hope there isn’t a close up of the actor’s back.

That’s all I’ve got today though I’m sure there are more. I’ve got to get some sewing done now.

There’s a pile of Varvatos shirts on my table that need the collar stand stitched to the shirt body.

Thanks for the Fabric, Tahari

Thanks for the Fabric, Tahari

Throughout my career I’ve worked on a variety of projects. People often ask what my favorite show to work was, or what my favorite period is. Both of those questions are difficult for me to answer. I could probably tell you what my least favorite show to work on was but narrowing them all down to one single absolute best and favorite is not possible.

It all depends. Some projects require more creativity than others. Some are relatively simple straightforward gigs that involve hemming a staggeringly large number of pants. Some shows are more stressful than others with a higher than normal rate of last minute changes. Some involve working with difficult people. Others are filled with co-workers that quickly become family.

Whenever I mention any of the period shows or movies I’ve worked on, people usually say, “Oh that must be so much fun!” When I say I work on a contemporary procedural crime drama, the response is more something like, “Oh. The show with the tattoos?” or “That’s interesting.” Meaning: That doesn’t sound interesting at all. Don’t actors just wear store bought clothes? What do you possibly have to tailor on those shows?

To this all I can do is laugh. No major actor or actress on any contemporary procedural crime drama wears clothing that hasn’t been fit and altered specifically for him or her.

There are, always, a few exceptions to this, notably when a talented costume designer knows the cut and style of high-end clothing well enough to know which designer label will fit a particular actor the best with little or no alteration. Frank Fleming who designs Power for Starz Network is an absolute master at this.

I truly enjoy working on Blindspot (my current gig). Everyone in the costume/wardrobe department is absolutely amazing and all the actors are lovely to work with.

One of the lead actresses wears a lot of expensive high-end dresses and skirts and blouses. Most of the dresses I alter for her require alterations in the shoulder, side, and waist seams. Altering the shoulder seams means the neckline will need to be altered and the sleeve taken out and reset. Altering the side seam means (again) the sleeve will need to be removed and put back on. Basically, I must take apart the entire dress and put it back together (Thanks for the fabric, Tahari! or Black Halo or Escada or Nanette Lepore).

We also do things like changing necklines (from a high scoop to a vee) and changing short sleeves to long sleeves or even adding sleeves altogether. Jared B Leese who designs Blindspot comes up with many creative and brilliant ways to alter something so that it no longer is a dress ‘off the rack’. He’ll ask things like, “Can you open this neckline?” or “Will you make sleeves for this dress?” or “What if we turn this into a v-neck – do you think that would look better.”

The answer is always “yes”.

This beautiful suede Tahari dress used to have a high crew neckline and short sleeves:

Tahari dress with new neckline and sleeves.

Tahari dress with new neckline and sleeves.

This lovely dress (also by Tahari, I think) used to be sleeves and all suede. We replaced the center panel and added some sleeves.

Tahari dress with new sleeves and center piece.

Tahari dress with new sleeves and center piece.

And this Black Halo dress used to be navy.

To be honest, this one was a complete rebuild. I copied the pattern from the existing dress, made a few adjustments and cut out and built a whole new dress.

Make of Black halo dress.

Make of Black halo dress.

See, contemporary procedural crime dramas are anything but boring (and often my favorite type of show to work on).

Just a closer view of the Black Halo dress.

Just a closer view of the Black Halo dress.

How to See in the Dark

How to See in the Dark

During the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work on quite a few large film productions with some highly recognizable actors and actresses. Film-making is exciting and tedious all at once, both exhilarating and debilitating. It’s not a life choice to venture into lightly – at least not if you require a steady, dependable job and paycheck.

You’ll never work again…

In movie making, and even more so in television, nothing is ever a sure thing. Shows get cancelled or pushed (postponed), people get let go for various, and sometimes odd, political (company) and personal reasons. I, personally, never believe a gig is going to happen until I’m actually there on the first day, filling out the inevitable novel of start paperwork you must complete at the commencement of every single job.

I’ve worked like this for twenty-five years now and I can say only two things for sure. One, explaining to people not in the business, be it your family, friends, or the bank you want a mortgage from, what you do and how you are hired, is never an easy thing. And two, that weird space you enter when you’re between jobs and the phone isn’t ringing and the little voice inside your head whispers you’ll never work again, never gets easier, not really. It doesn’t matter that history has always proven that you will indeed work again; you simply believe, irrationally, that this time is different.

At least that’s how it usually is for me. Yet, at the same time, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can’t fathom going to the same office every day for thirty years or more and doing the same thing over and over. It’s just not how I’m made. So I take the uncertainty and the freelance roller coaster ride in exchange for getting to do something that, most days, I love.

If you’re thinking of a freelance career in film, television and the theatre, you need to be really honest about whether or not you’re able to live with a heightened amount of insecurity.

I fought, bit, screamed, clawed and scratched my way in. There was no way I was giving up.

Here are a few of the things that I’ve found invaluable and helpful in surviving the freelance life.

1. Tenacity

Be determined. Wholly and truly give it your all. Remain persistent. Things don’t necessarily come easily. I remember a conversation I had long ago with a friend and colleague. We were talking about ‘breaking in’ to the movie business and how we landed our first job on a major film.

“I fought, bit, screamed, clawed and scratched my way in,” my friend said, “There was no way I was giving up.”

2. Resilience

It’s easy to believe in yourself and your talents when other people do. The true feat, though, is to believe in yourself and your abilities when no one else seems to. There will be failures and missteps and things that you wished had turned out differently. That’s all part of the whole thing.

There will, of course, always be that odd, seemingly infinitely lucky individual, who coasts, completely upright, into a successful freelance career with out skinning even one knee. But that’s the exception.

Most of us arrive a bit battered and disheveled with grass stains on our knees and twigs in our hair.

3. Vision

As the extremely successful celebrity stylist (and all around nice guy), Derek Roche has said, Build your own dreams or someone will hire you to build theirs.

 4. Learn how to see in the dark

When the darkness comes (and it will) you have to be able to navigate your way out and through it…

Some of my first theatre jobs were as a backstage dresser during live performances. This involved laundry and maintaining the costumes, as well as, helping the actors get dressed if needed (period things like corsets and garments with multiple back closures) and doing quick changes backstage in the dark.

Many backstage dressers use small bite lights to help them see while performing fast costume changes. I never really did. If you spend enough time in the wings in the dark, you eventually are able to see. I have no idea if this is a scientific fact; I only know that it was true for me. I have no problem finding zipper ends, or a slew of hooks or snaps in the dark.

Darkness, of course, can come in different forms – it can be literal like working backstage or it can be figurative like not being certain what your next move should be or being unable to see the path in front of you. When the darkness comes (and it will) you have to be able to navigate your way out and through it, you have to reach for that zipper and be able to insert one end into the other by feel.

Seeing in the dark is a tricky thing to master. It involves taking all your tenacity, resilience and vision at once and stepping forward, all the while trusting that the ground is indeed beneath your feet – just as it should be.

We Can Be Heroes

We Can Be Heroes

Growing up, my Mom had one of those metal Singer sewing machines that lived in a cabinet, the kind that folded in on itself where the machine dropped down underneath so that when not in use, the whole shebang was just an unassuming small wooden table.

That’s the machine I learned how to sew on, downstairs in the basement laundry room of my parent’s ranch style house in rural Ohio. Shoved against a wall right next to the furnace closet that, somehow, also contained the laundry shoot, there was barely room for the machine table. When you unfolded the top, it blocked the doorway. Clothes lines stretched across the ceiling of the room and the air space above the sewing machine was most often occupied by my father’s button down dress shirts either waiting to be ironed or just fresh off the board. I would bend over the machine with only its tiny little internal light to see by, trying to keep my stitches straight while the sleeves of my father’s shirts brushed against the top of my head.

Oldie but a goodie

It’s a wonder I ever completed a garment. But somehow I did. I constructed quite a few. Sometimes, I think that those early years of sewing with inadequate lighting next to a furnace room in the basement among men’s dress shirts perfectly prepared me for a career as a film and television tailor. If you can sew on a tiny table wedged into a rack of clothes on the back of a wardrobe truck and still create a well fitting and properly constructed garment while six different people ask you how long its going to take, you are well suited to be a film tailor. Cut out a perfect circle skirt with no pattern in five minutes or less on the tailgate of the same truck, and you will likely be a hero – at least for that day.

Tradition

Growing up, my Mom had one of those metal Singer sewing machines that lived in a cabinet, the kind that folded in on itself where the machine dropped down underneath so that when not in use, the whole shebang was just an unassuming small wooden table.My maternal Grandmother, my Nana, also sewed a lot. She had a whole room allotted for sewing, though it also held a bed and dresser. She sewed in the narrow space between the bed and the wall, only able to push her chair out so far. There are quite a few pictures of her at the machine. She made dresses for my Mom when she was a girl and later, jumpers and pants for me. She had a Singer 401 – the tan and cream model, the kind with the decorative stitch black cams that you insert into the top. The cabinet is long gone, but I still have the machine.

At that time in history, when I was young and my mom was young, the 1940s through the 1970s, sewing machines were common in most households. A lot of those machines were lodged into corners and narrow pathways. People laid their patterns out on wood floors, or the dining room table, or even the bed. Prom dresses and bridal gowns and Sunday bests were created in small, dimly lit spaces across the world by women and girls and boys (yes even boys), all of them heroes.

What about you?

Do you have a young person in your life who has discovered the joy of creation and sewing? If so, perhaps this might be the year to get them their very own machine – if you haven’t yet.

I’ve written before about the wonderful lightweight affordable machines Brother makes like the CS-5055 and the PC-210.

Either of these machines would make an excellent gift for that young dressmaker and tailor in your life. They are the perfect size to jockey into an unused corner with no light and launch the next generation of resilient, adaptable and creative sewers.